Photo courtesy of the Rev. John Floberg

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is on hold by order of the federal government, but opponents are still trusting in a higher power as they vie to end the project for good.

Defending sacred grounds and resources has been the rallying cry for thousands of protesters, many of whom have camped for months near the pipeline route in North Dakota. Whether they’re praying defiantly in the paths of bulldozers or recharging with sacred songs in camp, spirituality is the glue that holds it all together in what has become an event of historic proportions.

“Mother Earth is not an object. Mother Earth has a soul, has a spirit,” Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, told TLC cell phone from the camp. “Mother Earth is alive. Creator God created Mother Earth. And we are here to protect and defend that sacredness of Mother Earth.”

As tensions escalated before federal intervention on Sept. 9, cries of desecration led to clashes with private security workers, who were accused of using attack dogs to turn away protesters on Sept. 3. At stake was a parcel associated with Standing Rock Sioux ceremonial and burial rites.

In another incident, Morton County Sheriff deputies feared protesters were wielding pipe bombs. They turned out to be sacred Chanunpa pipes that are used for calls to prayer.

“It wasn’t a pipe bomb,” said the Rev. John Floberg, an Episcopal priest who serves three Standing Rock congregations. “It was calling people to prayer, to peaceful protest.”

As much as concerns for sacredness and environmental integrity have heightened tensions, they have also provided a bridge to historic unity — at least among opponents of what would be a 1,172-mile pipeline from the Bakken Oil Field across North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa to Illinois.

Fueling Protests?

When the Diocese of North Dakota covers camp expenses for Dakota Access Pipeline protesters, it taps into a well of financial support that the church receives from the local oil and gas industry.

The diocese owns land in North Dakota’s prolific Bakken Oil Field, where production has exploded in the past decade with the deployment of hydraulic fracturing technology. In exchange for permission to extract oil and gas from church-owned land, the diocese receives $15,000 in royalty payments this year.

Now a tithe from that income stream supports protesters as they try to stop Bakken oil from traveling via a 1,172-mile pipeline, which they say would imperil water supplies and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Oil and gas from the Bakken is currently transported via rail and highways.

The diocese’s $1,500 tithe from royalties represents one-third of the $4,500 that the diocese has spent so far to help operate the protesters’ camp, said the Rev. John Floberg. The other $3,000 came in donations from around the country.

Deriving income from fossil fuel extraction has drawn criticism in the Episcopal Church in recent years. Citing climate change, General Convention voted last year to phase out the church’s investments in large companies involved in fossil fuel extraction.

In August, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry linked the Dakota Pipeline protest to “climate justice” in a written statement, but North Dakota Bishop Michael G. Smith made no such connection in his Aug. 19 statement. He denounced the pipeline’s proposed route, but he raised no objections to fossil fuel development in the Bakken.

—G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Protests have brought together 200 Native American tribes in what is being called the largest voluntary show of unity since Gen. George Armstrong Custer attacked the Sioux and Cheyenne in 1876. Christian churches are also signing on, led largely by the Episcopal Church, which has maintained ministries among the Sioux since the 19th century.

“Whether we pray in Lakota or in English, it’s only one God that we pray to,” said Gayleen Yellowfat, a Roman Catholic mission school principal who is also Standing Rock Sioux. “We say there is only one Creator over all of us.”

Statements of opposition to the pipeline route have come from leaders at regional or national levels of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the Mennonite Central Committee. Floberg has been leading ecumenical outreach by urging other faith groups to support the effort with public statements or donations.

“My work right now is centering on how to get the Christian church engaged and supportive to the level that denominations are able to,” Floberg said.

The Episcopal Church is the only denomination displaying its flag on a fence among those of Native tribes at the main encampment, Floberg said. The Rt. Rev. Michael G. Smith, Bishop of North Dakota, and the Rt. Rev. John T. Tarrant, Bishop of South Dakota, have visited the camp to express support. Floberg visits regularly. He opts not to lead public prayers or celebrate the Eucharist there, but he makes a point to swap out his usual tee-shirt for his clerical shirt and collar.

“I’m not comfortable coming in from the church’s position and saying, okay, over here, we’re going to have an altar set up,” Floberg said. “We don’t want to divide that camp up between those who are Christian and those who are not. We want to respect the integrity of that nation gathering. We want to also make sure that people are able to see the Christian church. … We’re there to serve and to be known for that.”

The Diocese of North Dakota has been receiving donations from around the country to help pay for protest-camp necessities such as food and portable toilets. The Episcopal Church has shown support in part through a statement by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who called the Missouri River “a sacred tributary that the Sioux people depend upon for their daily water.”

On Sept. 8, members of the Episcopal Church’s anti-racism staff flew from New York to North Dakota, where they accompanied Floberg as he tried to pass through a sheriff’s checkpoint. He said the roadblock is discouraging would-be protesters.

It is violating his constitutional right to freedom of religion, he said, by adding an extra 45 minutes in travel time to visit his parishioners at St. James Church in Cannonball. If the American Civil Liberties Union were to sue to remove the checkpoint, Floberg’s experience and his claim of disenfranchisement could be part of the case, he said.

The encampment has remained intact as protesters wait on what is promised to be a swift federal review of permits during September. Investors in Dakota Access want construction finished before winter weather sets in.

As crisp breezes on the Great Plains suggest winter is not far off, spirituality continues to hold the camp together. Sacred songs, sung in Native American languages, filled the air for campers as they stirred early one morning last week. Yellowfat’s family has been distributing warm clothing and blankets for those who came from warmer climates when the weather was warm. Prayers ascend daily to the Creator while the sun shines. By night, an old-time sense of community sustains the bonds.

“It’s not all prayer,” Yellowfat said. “It’s also hand games, things that we did a long time ago. There’s no lighting, so when it gets dark people have flashlights or lanterns. There’s lots of visiting, like it was in the old days.”

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